Hindu nationalist wins fourth term as state leader and dismisses talk of becoming PM

Gujarat state chief minister Narendra Modi. Picture: AP
Gujarat state chief minister Narendra Modi. Picture: AP
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ONE of India’s most popular and controversial political figures won a fourth successive term as chief minister of Gujarat state yesterday.

Narendra Modi’s victory was being seen by some political analysts as the first step towards a bid to become prime minister.

Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 115 of the state legislative assembly’s.

182 seats against 61 for the Congress party, which heads India’s national government.

The result is likely to have repercussions far beyond the borders of the prosperous western state of 60 million people.

The BJP won 117 seats in 2007 and analysts say Mr Modi needed another convincing victory to present himself as the party’s presumptive candidate for premier in national elections due by 2014.

His win could fire up the ailing main opposition BJP, giving it a leader who inspires euphoric support for the high growth, uninterrupted power supply and safe streets he is credited with providing in Gujarat.

But Mr Modi, 62, portrayed by his critics as a closet Hindu zealot, could prove too divisive a figure to become a nationally acceptable leader who would also need to win over enough allies to form a coalition government.

That could play into the hands of the Congress party as it prepares to launch Rahul Gandhi, heir to India’s most powerful political dynasty, as the man to take over the reins from premier Manmohan Singh.

To his detractors, Mr Modi’s reign is overshadowed by Hindu-Muslim riots that tore through his state ten years ago, leaving up to 2,000 people dead. Critics accuse him of not doing enough to stop the violence, or even quietly encouraging it, allegations he has denied and which have never been proven.

But that has not stopped him winning successive elections, touting his credentials as an effective economic manager in contrast to the policy drift in New Delhi that has helped drag India’s growth to its worst pace in a decade.

His supporters shouted “PM, PM” at his victory speech. He addressed the crowd in Hindi rather than Gujarati, which was seen by commentators as an attempt to address a national audience in preparation for a possible run for higher office.

“I apologise for the mistakes I’ve made,” he told the crowd. “You have given me power. Give me your blessings so that I make no mistakes in the future.”

Mr Modi first came to power in Gujarat in 2001, and subsequently won elections in 2002 and again in 2007.

He has always publicly played down a possible bid to become prime minister, saying Gujarat was his priority.

The question will now turn to whether he will secure the backing of the BJP, which has been plagued by internal squabbling and has lacked a leader to galvanise the party’s Hindu, middle class “vote bank”.

“Modi means development,” said Shrikant Sharma, a BJP spokesman. “A lot of Indians expect him to be made the prime ministerial candidate, but that’s a call the party will take.”

Mr Modi’s appeal outside Gujarat is largely untested. Gujarat has been a BJP stronghold since the 1990s and benefited from a weak state-level opposition. But his campaigns on behalf of the party outside his home state have had mixed results.

“Modi has had a history of championing Gujarat, but this reputation for provincialism is obviously a liability if you’re aiming to lead a huge, diverse country of 28 states,” said Anjalika Bardalai, an analyst at the Eurasia Group. “His reputation as a Hindu hardliner… is of course a major potential liability in a country with a non-Hindu population of about 20 per cent.”

Critics, even within his own party, see Mr Modi as arrogant and divisive. He is also likely to struggle to revive the BJP’s fortunes in northern states with large Muslim populations, and could struggle to win regional allies – who rely on religious minorities – to form a national coalition. That could help Congress, although it has seen its popularity slide due to voter anger over slowing growth, high inflation and corruption scandals.